Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, once commented, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Brandeis personally witnessed the excessive greed and unbridled aggrandizement of the late 19th century Robber Barons who paid their workers starvation wages and treated them as expendables in hostile work environments. Later, he observed the progressive policies brought about by such national leaders as Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt that sprang into existence in the early years of the 20th century, those that helped to create an America of middle incomes and improved living standards.
Brandeis’ statement regarding democracy was in hope that the earlier economic conditions would not return to dominate the nation’s welfare. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, we have slid backward to resemble economic America of the late 1800s. We could do a lot better at making the U.S. a good place to live and work for most, if not all of us. There are many actions to achieve it, of course; here are a few ways to accomplish that status:
• Increase the federal minimum hourly wage to a living standard above poverty and index it to inflation;
• Create jobs through federally-funded infrastructure spending;
• Improve education by spending less on administrator salaries and perks and governor-led education reform committees while spending more on teacher preparation training and teacher governance programs to place those in charge who know how best to provide conditions for learning;
• Increase earned income tax credit and make more middle-class families eligible;
• Increase the personal exemption on federal income taxes by $500;
• Shore up Social Security by subjecting income over $300,000 to the payroll tax;
• Implement the Warren Buffet Rule to ensure that people earning more than $1 million annually are paying at least an effective tax rate of 30 percent;
• Eliminate “Mitt Romney’s favorite tax break” to ensure that hedge fund managers pay regular income tax rates on their incomes;
• Eliminate subsidies that go to millionaire farmers; and
• Close other corporate tax loopholes, including ones that reward corporations for moving overseas.
These bold steps, some of which struggle to exist now, would help to restore equality of opportunity in the U.S. Together they enshrine the central value of the American dream, that every child here should have an equal chance at achieving the good life: an education that really prepares each one for a job that allows him and her to support a family, universal health care, and, eventually, a safe, secure retirement.
Children born to middle-income and poor families should be able to rise as high as their abilities and efforts will take them. That, again, is the American dream although it has not been the case for all too many recent years. All of us will remain advantaged when all can rise to their potential; without opportunities, we will not bring back what we once were.
The great American constitutionally-based experiment that was established well over 200 years ago will continue to decay should we not wish and work for better for everyone who’s an American. We must reverse the drift towards ever-declining opportunity for the less than well off and continue to progress like we formerly had underway for most of the 20th century until we permitted greed and self-centeredness to be the guiding dark star it has become.
Soon, the deciduous trees will turn green again, flowers will bloom and the birds will sing. Let’s loosen some soil, let’s turn over a new leaf, let’s work harder in 2014 to broaden the opportunity for all Americans and try more diligently to make America once again a promising land for all our citizens.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)